Runyon Grant for Study of Tumor “Design Principles”

By Patrick L. Kennedy

What does yeast have to do with cancer? When it comes to studying how tumors form and grow, the answer is quite a lot, says Heidi Klumpe. A BME postdoctoral researcher, Klumpe has won a fellowship from the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation to figure out how cells aggregate into tumors.

Heidi Klumpe, Damon Runyon Fellow

With $260,000 over four years, Klumpe will use yeast as a model organism to engineer cell aggregates and observe their growth and maintenance over many generations.

Cell aggregation is the basis of every living thing from algae and moss to ducks and people. That includes, unfortunately, tumors. Yet it remains something of a mystery why and how cells do aggregate, since they face some headwinds—the cells in the middle of an aggregate have reduced access to nutrients, which can put them under stress, and are in a crowded environment, which makes it hard for cells to divide and the population to grow.

The Runyon study should solve that mystery, says Klumpe, by discovering the “design principles” at work. “What stabilizes an aggregate? What causes it to fall apart? The hope is that we’ll learn what’s necessary for cells to stick together, remain together and cooperate. That’s useful from the cancer research perspective, so we can disrupt that cooperation—keep those cells from growing and dividing.”

A key tool in Klumpe’s study will be a technology developed by her postdoctoral advisor Associate Professor Ahmad (Mo) Khalil (BME). His automated eVOLVER system can continuously run hundreds of cell cultures in real time. And once set up, the cultures can be monitored and managed remotely.

“The plan is to build these aggregates, put them in the eVOLVER, and then ask how well do they stay together?” Klumpe says. “Having the ability to build a new biological design and then test that idea relatively quickly is going to be awesome.”

Klumpe’s other advisor is Associate Professor Mary Dunlop (BME). It’s an ideal combination for her work, says Klumpe, who earned her PhD from California Institute of Technology. “Mo’s group has the hardware and synthetic biology expertise, while Mary’s group has experience with microscopy and modeling.”

The results of Klumpe’s research might have implications beyond cancer. “Say you want to build a biomaterial,” she says. “Maybe you could make a gel out of bacteria that sticks together in an aggregate. Hopefully this work will set the foundation for how to design a biomaterial. So thinking about this from the perspective of multicellular biotechnology is very exciting.”

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation was established by columnist Walter Winchell to honor his friend Damon Runyon, the writer whose short stories were adapted into the Broadway play Guys and Dolls. Runyon died of throat cancer in 1946.